Euro Cup – Day 12

Group C:
Germany v. N. Ireland
Poland v. Ukraine

Not really much of interest here with these final Group C games.  Northern Ireland could get to the magic number 4 points with a draw vs. Germany.  Even though they were impressive in beating Ukraine 2-0, I just don’t see it happening.  Expect Germany and Poland to move on and the other two to pack it on home.

Germany 2, N. Ireland 0
Poland 1, Ukraine 1

Group D:
Spain v. Croatia
Czech Rep. v. Turkey

Spain/Croatia is a great match-up but tempered somewhat because both teams have already reached the 4 point total, at least.  But there does appear to be a real advantage to winning the group, which Croatia could do by beating Spain.  The group winner here will get a third-place team in their first knock-out game, while the second-place team will get Italy, who will be a tough out, of course.  You could probably argue that finishing third with four points in this group could be a preferable route to seeing Italy in the Round of 16.  Croatia needs to hope its players and its fans can regain their composure after the flare-throwing, protest thing that marred their draw vs. the Czechs, but they are with out Luka Modric for this one, as he’s out with an injury.

Speaking of the Czechs, their tournament appeared all but over when they were down 2-0 in the 2nd half vs. Croatia.  Their equalizer in extra time of that game means all they have to do is knock-off what appears to be a dysfunctional Turkey team to get to the 4-point plateau.

Spain 0, Croatia 0
Czech Rep. 2, Turkey 1

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Euro Cup – Day 11

Wales v. Russia

The magic number in this group stage is really 4 points.  If you get to 4 points, you’re almost certainly through to the knock-out stage.  With three points, it will most likely come down to goal differential.  So, for this game, that means Wales needs a draw and Russia needs a win to feel safe about advancing.  I don’t think it’s in Russia’s nature to chase the game in the way they will need to here, and I’ll say that leaves them exposed to counter-attacks led by the speedy Gareth Bale.  Wales moves on and the Russians and their hooligan fans go home.

Prediction: Wales 2, Russia 1

England v. Slovakia

England is the only team in this group already sitting on those 4 points.  Does that give manager Roy Hodgson the green-light to continue tinkering with his line-up here?

In England’s win over Wales, it was easy to credit Hodgson’s substitutes, as the two goals were scored by subs.  Still, he deserves credit for making a double-switch at halftime, that involved inserting two strikers in Jamie Vardy and Daniel Sturridge.  It would be a shock if he didn’t start this game with two strikers, and with Raheem Sterling as the attacking midfielder left out of the line-up.  The question is, which two strikers?  Obviously, Vardy and Sturridge had great impact, but does Harry Kane get left out?  Sturridge would seem to be the third option of the three, but he was the one that really had the best impact in that last game.  I’m really not sure which two he will go with, but it would be hard for me to leave Sturridge out after what he did against Wales.

For Slovakia, Marek Hamsik has absolutely been one of the best players of the tournament.  Even though he’s 28-years-old and not a young buck, I would be surprised if some big clubs don’t get on the phone to Napoli to try to pry him away in the coming months.  The Slovaks need a draw to get to their four points.

Prediction: England 1, Slovakia 1

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Euro Cup – Day 10

Romania v. Albania

The first of our final group stage games here, as Group A will wrap things up with the only two games of the day, both at 3 PM.  Are these two eastern European countries under-rated, or are France and Switzerland over-rated?  We won’t find out until the knock-out round, I guess, but although these teams come into this with 1 point combined, they’ve both been impressive.  They both took mighty France to the brink, with a tie game until the very late stages in each.  And they both played right with Switzerland, as well.

There was a lot of talk coming into this tournament about how some third-place teams being able to advance would effect the tournament.  As far as I can tell (which might not be totally right), 4 points basically guarantees an advance to the knock-out stage.  Even with just three points and 0 goal differential, you’re probably getting through.  So, for this game?  A Romania win should advance them through.  Albania is probably done no matter what, with 0 points and a -3 differential, but it tells you something that they’re not eliminated already.  They both know they’re going home with a draw, which tends to make for some exciting games.

Prediction: Romania 1, Albania 1

France v. Switzerland

It was an interesting line-up switch by French coach Didier Deschamps to put two of his top-rated players, Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann, on the bench to start their game vs. Albania.  Of course, when your midfield is as loaded as theirs, there’s always going to be some top players left out of the starting line-up.  But it seems like he was trying to send a message to Pogba about how he wants him to play, and Griezmann was most likely left out because he’s pretty fatigued from a long season at Atletico Madrid that just ended in the Champions League final on Memorial Day weekend.

In any event, it will be interesting to see if they’re back in against Switzerland.  Even though Griezmann came on and scored the game-winner vs. Albania, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him on the bench to start again, because if you want to get him rest this is a good time, as they’ve already clinched a spot in the knock-out stage.  Whether or not Pogba is back in there is probably more interesting, because if he’s not that might mean Deschamps has decided to go away from him for the remainder of the tournament.

Switzerland has all but locked up a spot in the knock-out stage, as well, with four points through their first two matches.  But both of these teams have failed to impress thus far and could grab some momentum with a strong performance here.

Prediction: France 2, Switzerland 0


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Euro Cup – Day 9

Saturday, June 18th:

Ireland v. Belgium (Group E)

Ireland was actually pretty impressive in their first game, as they outplayed Sweden despite just coming away with one point.  Sweden didn’t have a single shot on goal, with their only goal coming on an own goal.  Fullback Robby Brady had a great game, threatening in attack up the left-side throughout the game, and the “Irish Messi”, Wes Hoolahan, had a beautiful goal and some other good chances.

The Belgians, meanwhile, turned in a performance that would’ve been surprising if we weren’t getting used to their underachieving.  One of the questions of the first group of matches was: are the Belgians actually this inept in attack or are the Italians actually that good defensively?  We’ll start to get some answers here.

The Belgian coach, Marc Wilmots, has taken a lot of criticism for that aforementioned underachieving, and it’s not hard to see why.  The game announcer questioned his line-up decisions, both defensively and in attack.  He suggested that Dries Mertens should probably be starting and I have to agree with that.  Marouane Fellaini, with the big fro, is a good player who can play in different roles.  His size, strength, and skill mean he can play as a striker or as a defensive midfielder.  Wilmots played him in the “#10″ role in the middle of the attacking midfield.  I don’t like him there.  He doesn’t move well enough and doesn’t have the ball-control or creativity to make things happen there.  They need to take him out of the line-up, move De Bruyne or Hazard into that role, and put Mertens on the wing.

Prediction: Belgium 2, Ireland 0

Iceland v. Hungary (Group F)

Two lightly-regarded teams here that turned in fairly shocking performances in their first game.  Many considered Hungary to be the worst team in the tournament and now they have a real chance to take 6 points from their first two games.  Both of these teams have the advantage of set rosters that played together a ton over the last two years, if not more.  While some other teams have star players sitting out qualifying matches because they play so many extra games in the Champions League, domestic cups, etc, these players are all there getting used to playing together.  And now either team can all but clinch a spot in the knock-out round with a win here.

Prediction: Iceland 2, Hungary 2

Portugal v. Austria (Group F)

The opposite side of the coin from the Iceland/Hungary game: the two favorites in this group that had bitterly disappointing results.  Austria may have been exposed as fraudulent with their 2-0 defeat by Hungary.  I also haven’t been much of a believer in this Portugal team, and their draw against Iceland didn’t change that.

Austrian attacking midfielder Zlatko Junuzovic is now out with an injury, so it will be interesting to see if they move David Alaba up into an attacking role.  Maybe that change will be good thing for them, as he came closest to scoring for them in the first game, banging a shot off the post in the first minute of the game.

Prediction: Portugal 1, Austria 0


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Euro Cup – Day 8

Friday, June 17th:

Italy v. Sweden

What a performance by the Italians in their win over Belgium.  We knew the defense would be the strength of the team, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a better performance from a defense than the Italians had against Belgium.  Not only did they hold the high-powered Belgian attack without a goal, but defender Leonardo Bonucci created the winning-goal with an incredible pass from deep in the field to Emanuele Giaccherini.  Italy plays three central defenders instead of the normal two, which makes it important that one of them is a guy like Bonucci, who can contribute to the attack with passes like that.

I still think there’s a ceiling to how far Italy can go in this tournament because of the lack of quality in front of that defense, but I wasn’t overly impressed with Sweden in their draw vs. Ireland and it looks like Italy has a good chance to win this group now.

Prediciton: Italy 1, Sweden 0

Czech Republic v. Croatia

Luka Modric scored an incredible goal to win Croatia’s first game but, like Dimitri Payet for France, would’ve been considered the best player on the field even if you took away their great goals.  Modric plays deeper in the field than Payet though and, even down to his floppy hair, is probably the closest thing in the world right now to Italy’s Andrea Pirlo in his prime.  Slight of build but just always around the ball and making the link-up play to seamlessly go from the defense to the attack, while doing some defending and attacking himself.  Every time the ball started moving up the field for Turkey, you were just waiting for Modric to appear and do something with it, and there he’d be.

The Czechs stayed tied with Spain until the 88th minute in a solid opening performance.  I haven’t changed my mind about them: they’re a solid team with good experience but lacking the talent to be anything more than that, and they find themselves in a tough group.

Prediction: Croatia 2, Czech Republic 1

Spain v. Turkey

Spain’s late goal in 1-0 defeat of the Czech Republic was certainly not enough to convince any doubters that they are back in championship form, but the defense was as good as advertised, as the Czechs managed just one scoring chance and, other than that, didn’t seem at all close to a goal at any point.

As I watched that game, it seemed that the key to Spanish chances in this tournament might rest with David Silva.  Two of the four attacking players starting for them are Alvaro Morata and Nolito, who are both decent but not a whole lot can be expected.  Another is Andres Iniesta, who played like the star that he is in the first game.  The fourth is Silva, who has had stretches over the last couple years for Man City where you would consider him the best attacking midfielder in the league.  That player was missing in the first game and a decent amount late in the EPL season.  We know they will defend, but Iniesta can’t be the only one working some magic in the Spanish attack.  They need Silva, also.

For Turkey, it looks like Arda Turan is far from his best form, and that spells doom for them.

Prediction: Spain 2, Turkey 0


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Euro 2016 – Day 7

Thursday, June 16th:

England v. Wales

This one obviously has the intrigue of the two British nations going against each other.  As if England wouldn’t have virtually all of the pressure on them in this match-up already, they now come into this one following the disappointing draw to Russia, while Wales is top of the group after their defeat of Slovakia.

All-time, England has 66 wins, 21 draws, and just 14 losses vs. their Welsh neighbors.  They’ve only played four times in the last 30 years, with England winning all four and Wales failing to score a single goal.

This English team has a ton of talent but you can question how prepared they are mentally.  They’re heavily relying on young, inexperienced players and their captain, Rooney, is not exactly known for his level-headed leadership.  Coming into this one following the Russian draw, what happens if Wales takes the lead?  How do they respond?

Prediction: England 2, Wales 1

Ukraine v. Northern Ireland

Here’s a ridiculous statistic: N. Ireland didn’t touch the ball a single time in Poland’s half of the field for the entire first half of that game.  Only after Poland scored early in the 2nd half did they make any effort to get forward and look for a goal.

They can’t afford to be so defensive here, because they absolutely need a win, with Germany awaiting in their final group game.  Actually, a draw here could spell doom for both teams, because Ukraine won’t want to go into their Poland game needing a win to advance.  That has the potential to make for an exciting game from two otherwise uninspiring teams.

Prediction: Ukraine 2, N. Ireland 0

Germany v. Poland

Not on the level of England/Wales, but a rivalry game here, nonetheless, between these two countries that share a 300-mile-long border.  A little surprising that they’ve only played each other twenty times ever, with 13 German wins, 6 draws, and a lone Poland victory.  But, that Poland win came in October 2014 and in their four contests in the last five years there’s one win for each and two draws, so anything is possible.

Polish star Lewandowski will be going up against a bunch of his Bayern Munich teammates here.  As for the Germans, they’ve opted for Mario Gotze over Mario Gomez at striker, which didn’t produce any goals in the first game.  We’ll see if they stick with him.  We’ll also see if center back Mats Hummels plays after missing the first game with injury.  His replacement, Shkodran Mustafi, actually scored a goal, but isn’t as good a defender.

I’ll go out on a limb and call a Polish upset here.

Prediction: Poland 2, Germany 1

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Euro 2016 – Day 6

Russia v. Slovakia

Neither team looked great in their opening matches as Russia salvaged a late draw vs. England and Slovakia went down to Wales.  I expect the Russians to play it fairly safe here.  They have a draw vs. the best team in the group in the bag and even two more draws would give them a very good chance of advancing.  Slovakia, on the other hand, will need to bring it to them.

Prediction: Russia 1, Slovakia 1

Romania v. Switzerland

Romania was better than expected in the opening game vs. France and it was courageous of them to come out and look to press and try to score from the outset.  Switzerland, on the other hand, seemed to continue their disappointing play from qualifying with a lackluster performance against Albania.  Despite an Albanian red card in the 36th minute, the Swiss still had to sweat out a 1-0 win.

This one is hard to predict, but maybe the Swiss will realize they need to raise their effort and won’t get caught off guard if Romania decides to come at them.

Prediction: Switzerland 2, Romania 1

France v. Albania

France’s opening win was all about Dimitri Payet’s dominating performance, not just with the great goal late but throughout the game.  A late-bloomer playing his first major tournament for France at the age of 29, Payet outshone the bigger names in the French side.  Not that it came as a shock after his really strong season for West Ham.  Payet hails from Reunion, a French owned island near Madagascar.  Crazy to go from there to the highest reaches of French (and world) soccer.

The added attention on Payet may open things up for Antoine Greizmann.  Greizmann doesn’t have elite speed or athleticism and is fairly small.  It takes seeing him play a bunch of times to appreciate how good he is.  He’s somewhat similar to Germany’s Thomas Muller in that he just has a great sense of where to be on the field, to anticipate where openings in the defense will come, and run into those spaces to create goals.

It was a really impressive performance from Albania against Switzerland but France is far superior and I think will have put aside some of the first-game pressure they were feeling to put up the tournaments first rout here.

Prediction: France 4, Albania 0


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Euro 2016 – Day 5

Tuesday, June 14th:

Austria v. Hungary

Just two years shy of the 100 year anniversary of the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, these two formerly united nations face off on the soccer pitch.  Neither team is considered much a power in the sport, but Austria does come in riding a ton of buzz and have become a popular darkhorse pick to make a run here.  I’ve seen it mentioned so many times that I’m almost ready to call it overblown and ready for them to fall flat on their faces.

David Alaba is the star Austrian player.  The 23-year-old has become a fixture in the Bayern Munich line-up at left back, but will play in a midfield role for Austria, putting him right in the middle of the field where he can orchestrate as much as possible for them.  It also helps that their captain, Christian Fuchs, is also a left back and he will man that position, as he did for EPL champions Leicester City this season.

The bulk of the goal-scoring responsibility will go to Marc Janko and Marko Arnautovic.  They haven’t had illustrious careers but come into this tournament off of career years for their clubs, Janko with an impressive 16 goals in just 17 games for FC Basel of the Swiss league and Arnautovic with 11 goals for Stoke City in the EPL.  Both are big, physically-imposing forwards.

Back in the 50’s and 60’s, Hungary was one of the best teams in the world, but this is their first major tournament since the 1986 World Cup and I don’t have much else to say about this team.  If Austria is actually for real to any extent, they should dispatch the Hungarians, who might be the worst team in this field, with relative ease.

Prediction: Austria 2, Hungary 0

Portugal v. Iceland

It’s crazy that Iceland is in this tournament.  A country of just over 300,000 people on an island out in the north Atlantic on a stage against the best footballing nations in the world.  Apparently back around the turn of the century the Iceland government and football association decided to really focus on building their program and clearly they’ve done an amazing job.

As part of that effort, this team has played together more than most, which gives them an edge.  In particular, their front six players are all between 25 and 28-years-old and have all been logging major time for this team for a good number of years.

The star for Iceland is Gylfi Sigurdsson.  I was impressed with him when he played for Tottenham a couple years ago and was surprised when he took a “step down” to move to Swansea.  He’s clearly been their best player and he will be the do-it-all box-to-box midfielder for this Iceland team.  He and Kolbeinn Sigthorsson are their two biggest goal-scoring threats.

For the Portuguese, there’s not much new to report here.  There is, of course, the best player in the tournament surrounded by a solid but far from great supporting cast.  Nani is still heavily involved up front and the always annoying  (and potential red card waiting to happen) Pepe will be in central defense.  Expect them to get through this group stage but not last long after that.  The biggest question is if Ronaldo is fully healthy and how badly he wants to push himself here.

Prediction: Portugal 3, Iceland 1

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Euro Cup – Days 3 and 4

Day 3, Sunday, June 12th:

Poland v. Northern Ireland (Group C):

Yet another team making their Euro Cup debut, and it should be a quick first appearance for Northern Ireland.  They’re not going to scare anyone in attack.  They do have Southampton stalwart midfielder Steven Davis as their captain and former Man U (current West Brom) defender Jonny Evans.

Poland, on the other hand, is one of the darkhorses of the tournament.  Will they win it?  Almost certainly not, but they have the talent to make a run.  It starts with Robert Lewandoski, who is one of the most feared goal-scorers in the world and netted 42 for Bayern Munich this season.  Arkadiusz Milik will most likely play alongside Lewandoski and he is also a legit goal-scoring threat.  Fullback Lukasz Piszczek is also highly-rated.

Prediction: Poland 2, N. Ireland 0

Germany v. Ukraine (Group C)

The reigning World Champs are absolutely a contender here but they come in to this tournament in worse shape than they were two years ago.  Captain Philipp Lahm has retired from international duty.  Long-time midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger looked older than his 31 years in a pedestrian first season at Man U, and may have lost his starting spot here.  Mario Gomez, who missed most of the previous two seasons with injuries before playing this year in the Turkish league, is expected to start at striker.  The only “new blood” that can be expected to contribute is 22-year-old midfielder Julian Draxler.

All that aside, they still have the world’s best goalkeeper, experienced center-backs in their primes, Toni Kroos controlling the middle, Mesut Ozil providing creative attacking, and Thomas Muller, one of the world’s best goal-scorers.  They’ll be fine.

Don’t expect much resistance from the Ukraine (insert Seinfeld quote here).  The entire team plays in the Ukrainian league with the exception of winger Yevhen Konoplyanka, who plays for the Europa League champs, Sevilla, in La Liga.

Prediction: Germany 4, Ukraine 1

Turkey v. Croatia (Group D)

This is an intriguing match-up.  Croatia is legit and they are one of the darkhorse teams that has a long but real shot to go deep in this tournament and possibly even to win it. The roster is almost entirely a mix of guys in their primes that play for big clubs in top leagues, and some young up-and-comers currently playing for Dinamo Zagreb, the top Croatian team, and most likely on their way to the big leagues.

Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic are two of the finest midfielders in the world and Mateo Kovacic may be on his way to joining them.  Mario Mandzukic is a solid striker leading the line, and both fullbacks are very good.

Turkey doesn’t always make it into the big tournaments, but when they do, look out.  They finished 3rd in the ’02 World Cup and 3rd in the ’08 Euro Cup, the last time they played in a major tournament.

Arda Turan is the star and captain for the Turks, even if he’s just a sub for mighty Barcelona.  Hakan Calhanoglu is another attacker to watch, especially on free kicks.  Left-back Caner Erkin just signed to move from the Turkish league to Inter Milan last week, so he is a talent to be aware of also.

Prediction: Croatia 1, Turkey 1

Day 4, Monday, June 14th:

Spain v. Czech Republic (Group D)

All the talk about Spain will be about their flame-out in the ’14 World Cup, but this team is still awesome and is right there with France and Germany as a favorite to win this thing.  No team in the tournament will be harder to score against than Spain.  Some would argue that David De Gea has surpassed Germany’s Neuer as the world’s best keeper.  They have the great center-back duo of Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique, and four world-class fullbacks to choose from for the two starting spots there.

There is some question about how many goals they can score, but Andres Iniesta and David Silva are still two of the best midfielders in the sport, and Alvaro Morata should be the striker.  He’s not elite, but certainly on par with the strikers France and Germany will run out.  Late-blooming 29-year-old Nolito is expected to start in his first major tournament with the national team.

This Czech team is solid but toeing the line between “experienced” and “old”.  If they had a different draw, they would have a decent chance of advancing, but Group D is probably the toughest in the field.  Also, they have to face Spain with starting center-back Marek Suchy suspended and their captain, longtime Arsenal midfielder Tomas Rosicky, will play but he missed the entire EPL season with injury and is 35 years old.

Prediction: Spain 2, Czech Republic 0

Ireland v. Sweden (Group E)

Groups D and E are definitely the most intriguing, and these two teams are expected to battle it out for third place in this group, which possibly means a berth in the knockout stage.

Ireland’s staring line-up is almost entirely comprised of middling Premier League players, but that’s better than a bunch of teams in this tournament can offer.  They really have no standout players.  Shane Long is a fairly capable striker and Glenn Whelan is probably their best midfielder.

Ireland’s team certainly has more depth of talent than Sweden, but where Ireland lacks a star, Sweden has one of the biggest in this tournament: Zlatan Ibrahimovic.  Even at 34-years-old, he is still a physical freak and one of the most feared strikers in the world.  His presence alone should make Sweden at least slight favorites in this game.  Marcus Berg will play alongside Ibra and is also (though to a much lesser extent) a goal-scoring threat.

Ireland’s main questions are in defense and at goalkeeper, so they could have a tough time dealing with Ibra in this one.

Prediction: Ireland 2, Sweden 1

Italy v. Belgium (Group E)

This is one of the best match-ups of the entire group stage.  But this is not your father’s Italy squad.  Many have said this is the worst Italian team to arrive at a major tournament in decades.  Andrea Pirlo appears done at 37-years-old and wasn’t picked for this team.  Mario Balotelli’s career has gone completely off the rails and he wasn’t even considered for a spot.  Probably their best midfielder, Marco Verratti, is out with an injury.  And there just isn’t much of a younger generation of Italian talent that has come through the pipeline.

All that being said, they’re still probably in the top third of teams in this tournament.  Their strength is absolutely in goal-prevention.  Gianluigi Buffon, at 38, still mans the goal, and his Juventus teammates, Georgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci, form a fantastic center-back tandem in front of him.  But it’s shocking to see the lack of talent in this midfield, and Graziano Pelle is probably the best of a middling group of strikers.

As for Belgium, they are starting to earn the dreaded “enigmatic” tag.  So much talent on the roster, but they’ve never put it together to add up to the sum of their parts.  In particular, striker Romelu Lukaku and attacking midfielder Kevin De Bruyne come into this tournament in great form and looking always dangerous to create goals.  My Chelsea boy, Eden Hazard, is looking to rebound after a really poor club season.

The one area you could point to as a weakness at the ’14 World Cup was at fullback, and that hasn’t changed at all.  It’s maybe even worse, because captain and center-back Vincent Kompany is out with an injury.  That means one of the natural center-backs that they play at fullback will have to move inside.  It’s just tough when you get little to no speed or offensive contribution from your fullbacks.

This tilt has particular interest for Chelsea fans.  Italian manager Antonio Conte will take over at Stamford Bridge once this tournament concludes, and both Lukaku and Belgian midfielder Radja Nainggolan are rumored to be moving to join him next season.  And, of course, there’s always Hazard and keeper Thibaut Courtois to track and root for.

Prediction: Belgium 1, Italy 0

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Euro Cup 2016 – Days 1 and 2

The Euro Cup is back!  The second-best soccer tournament there is, after the World Cup, of course.  This time it’s in France and the field has been expanded to 24 teams, from 16.    The 24 teams are divided into six groups of four teams.  The top two from each group, along with the four 3rd-place teams with the most points, will advance to the knockout stage.

There’s some very small countries that have managed to find their way in and, of course, some of the best teams in the world.  But those “best teams” all come in with some vulnerabilities, so there is a chance that this thing could get crazy with some upsets and maybe a surprise winner in the end.

Day 1, Friday, June 10th:

France v. Romania (Group A)

The hosts start the tournament and, I predict, will also end it as the champs next month.  Germany are the reigning world champs and Spain has won the past two Euro Cups, but I think the French have a team that is as complete as any in this field, plus the home-field advantage.  That’s why I like them to take their first major tournament since they won the Euro Cup in 2000, right on the heels of their ’98 World Cup triumph.

No team in the world can match the group of midfielders of France.  They have attacking midfielders that can put the ball in the goal (Antoine Griezmann, Anthony Martial, Dimitri Payet, Kingsley Coman).  They have holding midfielders than can stop the opposition in their tracks and then distribute up the field (N’Golo Kante, Blaise Matuidi, Yohan Cabaye).  And then they have a guy that can do all of the above, plus some more, in Paul Pogba.

There are some questions about the defenders, but they do have guys with experience back there, plus a strong keeper and those holding midfielders that can shield them to some extent.

They also are missing their striker, Karim Benzema, due to a suspension.  That leaves the so-so Olivier Giroud to lead the line.  But, again, they still have goal-scoring punch with those attacking midfielders, and Germany and Spain have striker questions of their own.

As for their opponents in this first game, Romania shouldn’t give them too much trouble.  They have just two players that currently play in top European leagues: captain and center-back Vlad Chiriches and goalkeeper Ciprian Tatarusanu, both of whom play in the Italian Serie A.

We can fully expect Romania to cede the middle of the field, and ball possession, to the fearsome French midfielders and hope to exploit the aging defenders on the counter-attack.  We can also expect it not to work.  But, maybe we’re in for a topsy-turvy tournament.

Prediction: France 3, Romania 0

Day 2, Saturday, June 11th

Switzerland v. Albania (Group A):

One of the cool things about following this sport is that you end up learning things about these countries and the world that have nothing to do with soccer.  For example, apparently there’s a huge Albanian immigrant population in Switzerland.  Who knew, right?  Most of them fled there as refugees during the post-Cold War ethnic strife in the 90’s.  As a result, there are actually a bunch of guys on the Swiss team that were born in Albania, and a bunch of guys on the Albanian team that were born in Switzerland.  How do they decide which country to play for?  Well, the guys who play for Switzerland are the better ones.

There’s actually even two brothers going against each other in this one: Granit and Taulant Xhaka, who were born in Switzerland to Albanian parents.  Granit is one of the best Swiss players (and he recently signed with Arsenal).

This is Albania’s first appearance in a major tournament.  Meanwhile, Switzerland has been disappointing over the last couple years, so don’t count out the Albanians here.

Prediction: Switzerland 2, Albania 0

Wales v. Slovakia (Group B):

Two countries making their Euro Cup debuts.  Each has appeared in one World Cup though, with Slovakia in 2010 and Wales way back in 1958.

Wales’s (and Real Madrid’s) Gareth Bale is maybe the world’s best player to never appear in a major international tournament.  That ends here.  All eyes will be on him, but this team has a bunch of solid players that are familiar to Premier League fans, notably Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen, Ben Davies, and Ashley Williams.

Key players for Slovakia: Marek Hamsik is a two-way midfielder while Martin Skrtel, the long-time Liverpool center back, will patrol the back-line as he captains his national team.

This game could be a bit of toss-up and could go a long way in determining a berth in the knockout stage.

Prediction: Slovakia 2, Wales 2

England v. Russia (Group B):

Ah, the English.  They’ve never won this tournament and won their only World Cup way back in 1966.  They flamed out of the ’14 World Cup in the group stage.  But, make no mistake, this group is a real contender in France this month.

Wayne Rooney is still the captain and a fixture in the starting line-up, but they are not relying on him like they have in the recent past.  Since the disaster in Brazil, Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy have emerged as two of the top goal-scorers in the Premier League, and they will feature prominently, even if Vardy can’t crack the starting line-up out of the gate.  Dele Alli was the Young Player of the Year in the EPL, and he could play a key role as well.

The center back duo of Gary Cahill and Chris Smalling leaves something to be desired, and England has a history of big expectations with small results, but this could be a coming-out party for the next generation of English players, even if they don’t go all the way for the title.

Meanwhile, from a quick glance you would think Russia would be the easy pick to finish second to England in this group, but maybe not the case.  They’ve been decimated by injuries to three starting mid-fielders in the run-up to this tourney, and that could definitely open the door for an upstart Slovakia or Wales to beat them out.

Still, Russia should be very well organized defensively, as their coach, who also coaches the reigning Russian league champs CSKA Moscow, will run out three of the four defenders and the goalkeeper from his CSKA side for this team.

Prediction: England 1, Russia 0

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